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Austin and Miami: A study in language, and ethnoeconomic culture

My research question for this project was originally: “How do the power relations of ethnoeconomic groups change as other languages become culturally significant in the United States?”

I feel that I’ve answered this adequately, but in doing so have moved away from a focus on the language aspects of this issue, towards a paper concerned with identity and power relations. Fortunately, in our tangled times, it’s hard to remove language from these themes, so Spanish still shines through. If I had more room in this paper, the first thing I would add would be information about other immigrant groups and cultures, rather than just focusing on the Latin American groups of Miami and Austin. This way, Spanish would be joined some of the other languages one can hear in these “multicultural metropolises”: French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Creek, Cherokee.
In terms of improvement, I’m looking for the areas where articulation and/or clarification is needed to make my point/example. Is my underlying argument clear and easy to follow?

This recent article in the NY Times was a piece that I had to leave out, for editing and coherency’s sake.

The United States of America has encountered issues of multicultural identity since the Mayflower touched down at Plymouth Rock. My research is concerned with more recent times and other locales though. In this paper I will outline how non-English speaking communities have altered American society, particularly in Austin, Texas; and Miami, Florida. I will look at examples of Latin American immigration for how these “foreign language” communities have emerged, how they are maintained, and what consequences there are of “minority languages” on English and non-English speaking communities.

Languages other than English are introduced and maintained in American society in a number of ways. The “immigrant experience” is a prominent one. In Miami, Florida, there is an example of this in the past 50 years. In 1959, with Cuba’s revolution, Miami saw an immense influx of refugees and immigrants, with the immigration rate in Miami going so high as to push the percentage of “foreign-born persons” in Miami past 35% (Bretzer) in two decades, a statistic that has grown to over 50%, according to the 2000 US Census (1). While this “foreign-born” growth is a clear outlier in America, it’s an indication of societal change: America has become an international hub, not simply in terms of business, but also in terms of culture, and people. The languages of Miami reflects this. As Cuban and Haitian immigration shot so high, is it any wonder that Spanish and French became more common in this multilingual metropolis?
But a temporary influx of immigrants produces an effect of mother-tongue loss on the part of later generations of immigrant families. A danger Miami has begun to face is its identity as “the Latin-American hub of business” (Fernandez) with increasingly few skilled speakers of Spanish, some argue. Even those “second generation” immigrants who grew up with a non-English language demonstrate less aptitude at it, due to a mix of predominantly English schooling, non-English illiteracy, and a separation from a larger non-English community.
Some scholars have described a state of “stable bilingualism” (Fishman), in which a region or community maintains the use of multiple languages over an extended period of time. We are seeing that in many pockets of present-day (hegemonic English-speaking) America with the use of Spanish. This “stable bilingualism” is how Miami has become, and has maintained itself as, a place for international business and a place for the “audible evidence of loss of power for non-Hispanic whites [, it would seem]” (Bretzer). Racial and economic tensions are tied into American immigration, pathways to the inclusion of groups into pre-existing power structures, as we will see.

Government and business have moved to respond to the increase in non-English speakers, but in contrasting ways. New communities of non-English speakers offer opportunities for business in America, which leads towards cultural co-optation and assimilation. “People need to understand the [buying] power of Hispanics”, as a television director in Austin put it (Powell). Over 35% of Austin is of Hispanic or Latino descent, up from 30%, according to a 2007 census, and the 2000 US Census respectively. The growing demographic is able to hold larger sway over marketing and commercial decisions. Projected figures for ad revenue in the coming 5 years from Spanish radio stations in Austin was over $32 million in 2005 (Grisales). Cuban-Americans have become a driving force in Miami as well, where, by 1982, there were 24,898 Cuban-owned businesses (Castro). As Cuban-Americans became financially invested into American economic systems, power structures are being maintained. Diverging identities lie in these two cities though – in Miami, the cultural view is that Cubans can own their business, as evidenced above. In Austin, the cultural view is that Mexicans can run others’ businesses, a point of stereotyping, and cultural adoption. This “middle class/lower class” dichotomy is indexed by the groups’ political influence. In Austin, there is still a struggle to give stipends to government employees for their bilingualism (Alexander) – a skill necessary for servicing monolingual Spanish communities, perceived as lower/working class groups.

Frustrations with this evolving status and non-English speaking communities’ insertion into American power structures are constantly voiced. In a “historically black district” in East Austin, Hispanic gentrification of the area has led to shifts in its political status, and resultant conflicts between political leaders (Copelin). Immigrants can become prime targets for robberies and other violence, and Austin emergency services have had to reach out: “Ayudanos a ayudarte. Llame a 911. En Austin, es diferente” (Osborne). Individual incidents have symbolic weight as well, such as when Jose Varela was armed and engaged in a three-hour standoff at El Nuevo Herald’s offices with police in Miami, over tensions between the Spanish language newspaper and the English-language Miami Herald (Merzer). It seems, though, that nothing has substantially changed due to the rise of Latin American immigration to the US. We still encounter the same class distinctions, race distinctions, and political distinctions – the Cuban middle-class and Mexican lower-class has had little chance to change this, as their monikers indicate.

In conclusion, the shifts indicated by non-English speakers in America hasn’t radically altered the power dynamics of American society. They are incorporated into pre-existing structures, allowing for the comfortable maintenance of them. Non-English languages aren’t leaving America. They are entrenched in our cultures, businesses, governments.


(1) Haitian immigration has significantly contributed to these statistics as well, due to the turbulent nature of Haiti’s history as a nation.

Works Cited

Alexander, Kate. “Stipend for Spanish-speaking city workers urged.” Austin-American Statesman 3 August 2006: A01

Bretzer, Joanne. “Language, Power, and Identity in Multiethnic Miami.” Language Loyalties: 209-216

Castro, Max J. “On The Curious Question of Language in Miami.” Language Loyalties: 178-186

Copelin, Laylan. “Old and new East Austin meet in race.” Austin-American Statesman 15 January 2008: A01

Fernandez, Enrique. “In South Florida, Spanish isn’t what it used to be.” The Miami Herald 10 March 2008

Fishman, Joshua A.  “Language loyalty in the United States : the maintenance and perpetuation of non-English mother tongues by American ethnic and religious groups.” Mouton, The Hague 1966

Grisales, Claudia. “Hispanic radio in Austin gets new market leader – Border Media , which now owns 7 of 8 stations, says change is in the air.” Austin-American Statesman 11 January 2005

Merzer, Martin and David Ovalle. “Cartoonist arrested following siege at Miami newspapers.” The Miami Herald 24 November 2006

Osborne, Johnathan. “Robberies lead police to reassure immigrants – Department hopes radio ads, new task force will get workers to report crimes, not fear deportation.” Austin-American Statesman 21 November 2000: B1

Powell, Anita. “A soggy, but spirited, celebration – Cinco de Mayo fest is family fun Music, games draw 30,000 to party for holiday with Mexican American roots.” Austin-American Statesman 9 May 2005


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